Why the Affluent Need the Poor

mexico divided4

Photograph by Oscar Ruíz

It seems intuitive that the poor need the affluent, but it’s less intuitive to consider that the affluent need the poor. It’s my conviction, however, that although the poor cannot thrive physically without the aid and resources of the affluent, the affluent cannot thrive spiritually without the poor.

When I use the word “affluent,” I mean a state in which the following are a daily reality: a variety of decent foods, quality clothing that fits, safe and stable shelter, clean running water, comfortable sleeping arrangements, a generally high degree of safety, reliable/efficient transportation, and close ties to people whom you can depend on in an emergency. You’re not worried about having to cut your family meals down to 2 a day; you’re not having to decide today between buying food or paying the electric bill; you’re not one paycheck away from homelessness; and you have a well resourced social network. If those things are true of your life, even if you experience financial stress or live on a tight budget, you meet my definition of affluent.

So why do the affluent need the poor? Because affluence that’s not balanced and informed by daily, meaningful interaction with people on the margins is poisonous to the Christian faith. I’m convinced this is the reason why Jesus told his disciples that his people would be characterized by feeding the poor, giving drink to the thirsty, being hospitable to immigrants, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and having concern for the incarcerated. The description in Matthew 25 in which Jesus differentiates between the sheep and the goats should make us all stop dead in our tracks and check ourselves. What He describes goes way beyond donating to charities, supporting missionaries who do this work overseas, or contributing to food and clothing drives a few times a year. It’s a lifestyle that reflects a heart for marginalized people – a heart that overcomes the prejudices that society conditions us to have and then loves with extravagance the people whom the dominant society would rather throw or lock away.

No matter which country, empire, or period in history we talk about, the people whose existences are plagued by hunger, thirst, nakedness, loss of country, sickness, and imprisonment tend to be members of subdominant ethnic, social, or religious groups who are distrusted, despised, and rejected by the dominant culture. This means those of us who are affluent can’t live the Matthew 25 life outside the context of relationships with people who are very different from us. We also can’t do it well without constantly repenting of our own racial and socioeconomic preferences, sensibilities, and prejudices, and without being counter-cultural. There’s no way around this.

Here’s the thing, though. Affluent people have an extremely low tolerance for inconvenience. We run on tight schedules and complain about slow cashiers and traffic delays. We would rather write a check to a charity than rearrange our lives for people with complex problems. But writing a $1000 check to the food bank is a very different experience from listening to a chronically hungry person tell you her life story as you drive around a part of the city you’ve never seen before and help her run a few errands that, without wheels, might take her a week to complete. Will the $1000 check make a difference? Absolutely! It will make a tangible difference to many hungry people in the city. But it won’t change you because it’s too remote. Because there’s no relationship, there’s no exchange, no mutuality, and no reverse impact.

Relationships have a way of transforming what we first experience as inconvenience into perspective, and then into empathy, and then into love. I had an exaggerated perception of the inconveniences in my life until I woke up to the reality that for people on the margins, life is one huge, never-ending inconvenience. Nothing is easy, and even simple things take four times longer to take care of than it does for me. A person on the margins has no margin. S/he is always a hair’s breath away from a major crisis, and it doesn’t matter how hard s/he works.

A friend of mine is a former convict who spent 4 months in jail between late 2001 and early 2002. Because of his criminal record, he has a hard time finding stable, gainful employment; but he has never been afraid of hard work, so for the last 13 years, he has managed to patch together various odd jobs to support himself and his wife. That is, until he got really sick recently and ended up being temporarily disabled and unable to work. The algorithm in his life looks like this: no work = no food and no money for rent = homeless, hungry, and on the street within a week without intervention.

My own inconveniences bother me a lot less than they used to.

There is a stark contrast between the tendency toward boredom and existential crises among my affluent friends, even those in full-time ministry, and the actual existential threats that my friends who are poor experience on a daily basis. My poor friends have been so proximate to death and injustice for so long that they’ve had to depend on God for survival and deliverance in ways that my affluent friends have not. The systems of the world fashioned by sinful humans have been cruel and oppressive to them, but they’ve seen God provide and deliver in ways that reassure them of his presence, his love, and his promises. This contrast results in the following paradox: the faith and courage of the poor tend to grow stronger through their chronic trials, while the relatively episodic and seasonal trials of the affluent tend to provoke doubt, fear, and cynicism. I’ve lost count of the number of upper-middle-class kids I watched grow up in the church, only to become disillusioned in college or young adulthood when they could no longer generate enough meaningful spiritual experiences to get them through the first serious disappointment or tragedy they experienced. Those kids were given every advantage their parents could afford and some of the best theological (cognitive) teaching available, but their faith had been starved and suffocated by the affluence that kept them separated from those on the margins — precious brothers and sisters who could have taught them so much, and in whom they would have encountered Jesus in powerful, transformative ways.

Star-of-BethlehemLoving and caring for people who are poor and marginalized involves exchanging the charity paradigm for an incarnational one. We must enter their lives and their stories and identify with their struggles. We must allow them to enter our lives as well, to inform our struggles. With charity, you retain power, but with incarnation, you lay it down. Charity is predictable and manageable, but incarnation is uncomfortable, unpredictable, and inconvenient. Charity is transactional, but incarnation is relational.  With charity, you are the hero, but with incarnation, Christ is both your hero and theirs.

This paradigm is not easy for the affluent to accept. It’s like asking people who never exercise to train for and participate in a triathlon. Imagine what that would be like. The first workout would be miserable. You might say, “That’s too hard. I don’t want to do this again.” On the other hand, if you make a commitment to the new exercise and diet regimen, you’ll find that over time, your body doesn’t hurt constantly, you whine a whole lot less, your muscles grow stronger, your stamina improves, and you even start to look forward to it.

You don’t have to know where to start. Today, just pray, “Lord, where do I begin?” Trust me, God will answer. He knows what you need.

Categories: Church, Culture/Social issues, Spiritual Formation

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